Innovation @ BBG » Africa Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 VOA West Africa Trip: What I Learned… #Africa2014 Mon, 24 Mar 2014 19:12:07 +0000 Adam Martin I recently returned from 17 days of travel through sub-Saharan West Africa, experiencing the culture, meeting with VOA broadcast affiliates, becoming educated on the local digital media ecosystems and gaining a better understanding of how US International Media can prepare to meet the opportunities presented by this rapidly evolving region and serve our strategic mission.

During those 17 days across Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria, I heard from a diverse collection of journalists, social entrepreneurs, students, cab drivers, broadcasters, technologists and Senegalese Wrestling fans (Laamb!) who shared what they say those opportunities are and also some of the challenges they face.

What I learned…

Media & Technology

  • Mobile communication dominates as a form of social interaction among young students and professionals in the region. Mobile messaging apps, chat services, SMS and IVR all inform the way people communicate, organize, learn, send and receive news & information.

  • The Social Web is the Web for many in this same demographic who regularly engage online. Facebook acts as a single destination for people where they can message with friends, share photos, find relevant information, socialize online and organize ‘in real life.’ Twitter, Instagram and multimedia mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber and 2Go are also growing as places where people engage with friends, family, media organizations, brands and public figures online.

  • But…radio continues to play a critical role in these communities with its ability to reach a large and diverse audience, engaging them on topics that are local, relevant and personal to their lives while bypassing challenges for Web access that range from low broadband penetration and cellular data accessibility to language proficiency and literacy.

  • Radio and the Social Web share many characteristics that make them complimentary and allow them to serve as critical sources for communications. Having an ‘authentic voice’ that reflects the local language and culture with the ability to respond to the audience in ‘real time’ is key to successfully engaging with and building a supportive, loyal following — on-air or online.

Adam Africa trip

Me (fourth from left) with the Radio Kledu FM Team in Bamako, Mali

  • The regional telcos (telecommunications companies) that control the ‘last-mile‘ flow of data, information and access to the global community have tremendous influence over the way people use their mobile devices to communicate. Working effectively with these power brokers will be necessary for near-term success in providing content to these communities while alternatives are developed to bring more competition and collaboration to the market.

  • Affordable access to cellular data and low broadband penetration continue to be two of the biggest obstacles to ‘internet everywhere’ across the Sahel. Closing the digital-divide in these countries will lead to opportunities for incredible growth in access to education, new business opportunities, health and social services and cultural exchanges.

Adam Africa radio

Radio Kledu FM and digital news teams preparing the afternoon rundown


  • Digital Media Literacy within these regional audiences is growing exponentially. There is a critical need to bring more digital training to the journalists, technicians, marketers, programmers and management teams at USIM affiliates in order to meet the needs of an audience that is increasingly finding alternative programming online.

  • VOA Broadcast Affiliates across the region are increasing investments in their digital operations and in original programming. They say there is a demand for unique, local content that reflects their culture and is relevant to their changing lives. This means news that is timely, actionable and formatted for a mobile audience that is increasingly engaging first, through the social web before turning on the radio or television.

  • The potential for Nigeria as a center of economic growth and innovation on the continent appears almost limitless but it also faces many challenges. A renewed confidence in local and national political leaders, investment in its infrastructure, re-emphasizing education reform, and improving access to social services for all citizens were all said to be critical to Nigeria’s future success.

Adam Africa Photo Radio

A look inside a Ghanian broadcasting company


  • Mali has an amazing local music scene with modern r&b sounds rooted in the traditions of blues-men like Ali Farka Toure, but there’s also an underground hip hop community and a collection of club DJs and band leaders bringing Merengue, Salsa and Bachata to Malians.

  • Extreme sports that combine speed, action, music and local passions are growing rapidly in popularity in West Africa. If you want to learn first hand about youth culture in Dakar, go to a Laamb match where you’ll find them watching their favorite wrestlers get after it.

  • Money, Religion, Sports and Politics are the topics people I talked with spoke most passionately about ~ so not that different for a neighborhood guy from north Boston like me.

  • In Lagos there is an ‘energy’ that comes from the people and from the city itself…you can feel the City breathin’. The pace is frenetic but with a sense of urgency – the kind that drives change.

  • But the traffic…Lagos needs to fix its traffic situation.

  • If you’re near Osu in Accra, head toward the beach and ask for the spot where they serve the best ‘red red’ you’ve ever eaten…trust me.

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VOA Symbian App Launches for North Africa & Middle East Markets Tue, 14 Jan 2014 21:00:49 +0000 Will Sullivan In the new year, we launched a new application on an old platform — VOA for Symbian OS.

The VOA Symbian app is focused on VOA‘s networks English, French, Hausa and Persian, specifically for North Africa and the Middle East regions, and it features multimedia news, photo, text and video content from the Voice of America news services.

Why Symbian? Because the decade-old Nokia platform is still strong in the African countries, still maintaining a top 4 Operating System ranking in many markets jockeying for position between Google Android, Apple IOS, and Nokia S40 OS. Of all those systems, Android is slowly taking the most market share from the older Nokia platforms, but it’s a slow churn rate due to Nokia’s rock-solid industrial designs — their phones are notorious for lasting forever — and because of the financial and technical challenges in the area, users aren’t upgrading their phone every 2 years (or less) as many people do in the more developed world.

The timing of the app launch will also help us with our surge efforts to help spread news and safety information in the Central African Republic, where there’s currently a humanitarian crisis going on. Symbian holds a stable 10 percent market share in the country, behind Android (42%) and Apple (18%) for the top three mobile operating systems.

The VOA Symbian app joins the Google Android and Apple IOS mobile and tablet applications already released which support 43 languages each.

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Mobile Mali Project Update: Moving IVR into the Cloud Tue, 27 Aug 2013 17:40:48 +0000 Doug Zabransky  

About the Project

ODDI’s first Interactive Voice Response (IVR) deployment was in Bamako, Mali (Read More). We used a Microsoft Research product called IVR Junction. IVR Junction runs on a single laptop using Voxeo Software and a gsm modem used to convert to Voice over IP (which means it can run over the Internet).

Looking towards expanding the Mali prototype to other cities led us down the road of a central IVR server to manage all clients. The server would handle the configuration and management of Client IVR systems or branches. A centrally managed server would allow for rapid client deployment and easier management of a global IVR network.

The IVR server hosted within Amazon Cloud will manage client IVR Voice Forum configurations allowing BBG language services to self-service several Voice Forum options and record or upload custom, in-language voice prompts. Our longer term vision is to evolve client systems into bullet proof “Bricks” in the cloud, able to withstand electrical surges, outages and intermittent network connectivity issues. Clients will be able to seamlessly hibernate into offline mode for days. Once internet connectivity resumes automated server syncs will occur.

Target release Beta – October 7th
Theme Mobile / UGC / Engagment / Accessibility
Product Owner Doug Zabransky
Designer Ahran Lee
Developers Liwen Liu
QA Yousof Kokcha


User Perspective User Story Description
As ODDI Director… I want to deploy a scalable, affordable, and reliable multi-market IVR network on offer to BBG entities and language services
As Language Service Editor… I want to self-manage my own IVR system Voice Forums, messages and prompts
As Language Service Chief… I want to track analytics for my regions IVR deployments and individual Branches
As a Caller… I want to be able to make a local call and listen to the news or leave a message to the station over my cell phone without a data plan
As a Systems Administrator.. I want to more easily manage, implement and connect a network of clients

The current scope of this project is committed to meet the following goals:

    • Ship three next generation IVR clients to locations TBD (Mali Replacement Client?)
    • Client configurations and Voice Forums will be self-service and managed through a user friendly, simple browser interface on an Amazon server
    • Four Voice Forum Templates will be available within this release (Simple Listen and Leave a Message Voice, Voting, Polls, and Caller / Listener Bulletin Boards)
    • Clients will automatically sync Voice Forum updates or additions, voice prompts and news recordings with server and drop box .
    • Clients will continue to function in off-line mode, but will syncing IVR tracking and messages whenever reconnected to the internet.

The server will contain four primary modules: Analytics, Moderation, Configuration and Health

The Analytics module will provide detailed reporting on not only on the number of callers but caller event tracking to track the precise behavior of individual callers and groups of callers.  The Moderation module will allow language services to listen to caller messages and syndicate messages or a playlist of messages to either a community bulletin board available within an existing IVR Voice Forum listening option or to an online digital outlet like SoundCloud.  The Configuration module will allow digital journalists or language services to select and self-service in-language voice forums. Client Health is geared for system’s administrators to proactively manage and troubleshoot client alerts.

Technical Specifications

LAMP: open source software ‘stack’ built on Linux, Apache, MySQL and Python + PHP
Voxeo Prophecy:  software that runs the IVR voice forum menu options
GSM Gateway: device that uses local SIM cards and converts mobile communications to VoIP
VoIP:  delivery of voice communications over an IP network or Internet

Site Design Principles

  • Dashboard / Flat / Simple Configuration / Windows 8 Touch

Voice Forum Selection Wire frame Draft

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Go Local: Embracing Global Tech Entrepreneurs Tue, 20 Aug 2013 15:14:06 +0000 robbole Today, the sources of media and technology innovation for emerging markets are moving away from the traditional centers of Silicon Valley, New York and Seattle.

Using powerful and flexible open tools, innovative centers are spreading across the globe to places like Dakar, Accra, Lagos, Bangkok, Dubai and Lahore. This new class of innovators is creating products and services made for their local markets that respond to the particular culture and interests of their local audience. The trend of “go local” in digital products and services is a growing, and it’s an important one for media companies to understand for their future.

In his seminal book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steve Johnson pointed to the engine of “crowd-based, decentralized environments” in driving new products and services. This is because their “openness creates powerful opportunities for good ideas to flourish.”

Young men and women around the world are creating innovative new products that are made in their own image and for their local markets. Social networks such as 2Go (Nigeria), or communication suites like Swaara (India) or WhatsApp (Dubai) are defining the next generation of technology for US international media (USIM) markets.

Africa innovation hubs map L

Once the province of geographic anchors that had a unique combination of power, money and education (e.g. Silicon Valley, NYC), this openness is spreading across the globe powered by open source technology, cloud-based services and increasingly improved technical education for new classes of engineers and entrepreneurs. (It is important to note that the improvement of technical education is in no small part powered by new collaborations between established and emerging market universities, as well as technology companies investing in employees.) Entrepreneurs in emerging markets have the same advantages today with access to low-cost computing and software resources as their Western counterparts.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that emerging market entrepreneurs and innovators face a number of barriers not faced by Western counterparts, such as poor electricity, high data costs and low digital literacy rates among audiences. But these barriers present an opportunity for organizations like the Broadcasting Board of Governors to add value.

As a media organization, we at BBG have a vast audience of over 200 million weekly and a world-class distribution system that includes a global broadcast and digital infrastructure. We also have access to a large network of both thinkers and doers in the digital space around the world.

These assets form the basis for an exchange of value. Rather than just an opportunity to take new thinking and energy and apply it to our mission, the heart of any partnership is that all are advantaged. As a global media organization, we have the ability to accommodate many partners, giving them the support of enterprise-quality technical infrastructure, mass audiences and ability to access the vibrant channels of radio and television. In turn, through these partnerships we can become more agile, relevant and have clearer insight into ever-changing markets.

The Co-Creation Hub in Lagos

The Co-Creation Hub in Lagos

USIM’s future and competitiveness depends on our capacity to innovate. We need to move flexibly and fast—increasingly, that means we need to be plugged in to new innovation centers around the world.

In the coming months and weeks ODDI will look at ways we can be connected to this new class of innovators. Perhaps we will become consortium members or angel funders or just good partners with the next generation of entrepreneurs. At a minimum ODDI and USIM needs an inside understanding of how markets, audiences and technology are evolving together. This could take the form of building a close relationship with an innovation center to get first look at the technology, collaborating with developers on open source technology, or partnering with young companies to enhance our presence in key markets.

ODDI needs to continue to evolve and go beyond the four walls of its inside-the-beltway HQ. Increasingly, we need to go where tech meets markets and be that much more aware of how we take the smart thinking of these hives of innovation and turn them into expanding our ability to meet audiences where they are going to be.

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Getting News To and From Some of the Most Difficult Places on Earth Mon, 18 Mar 2013 19:28:18 +0000 April Deibert With the ongoing situation in Mali, it has become increasingly important that VOA work with ODDI to strategize an alternative means of getting news to and from this technologically-challenged region.  Currently, ODDI’s Doug Zabransky is leading the team in the development and experimental testing of what they call the Mali1 Mobile Interactive Voice Response (IVR) forum.  This technology uses IVR Junction by Microsoft Research to drastically simplify how locals can consume news and report events.


Zabransky Discusses Mali1 Mobile IVR Prototype [1min 17sec]

[Mobile video credit: Rob Bole]


What Started It All: Mali1 Micro-Blog

The precursor to Mali1 Mobile IVR was the Mali1 micro-blog site created by VOA Africa and the Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) to quickly respond to getting news into Mali as Islamists began to overrun the northern provinces of the country.  This site, leveraging Tumblr and SoundCloud, was meant to be light and easy to read on all devices, to load quickly, to provide a way to submit news via email, and to include relevant news and music in the local language provided by the VOA.  The Mali1 site has begun to build an audience of both individuals in Mali, as well as a world-wide diaspora community.  Voice of America saw the value in this tool, but wanted to provide a higher level of services directly to the population in Northern Mali.

Several potential problems still stood in the way of providing the service.  The lack of consistent electricity in the North to power to recharge phones is an issue, as well as the lack of data and wi-fi, let alone affordable Internet services in order to access even the lightest of websites was another core problem.  VOA Africa, working closely with the technical ODDI team began to explore alternative options for content delivery with a focus on mobile voice for news.

Late last year, we posted an article about mobile voice for news on the Innovation Series blog from Ben Colmery, Deputy Director of Knight International Journalism Fellowships. The article, “How to harness the power of mobile voice for news,” explored mobile citizen journalism.  Rob Bole, ODDI Director of Innovation, wrote a brief intro to Colmery’s piece about how he recently “spent some time with a group of exemplary journalists and technology experts discussing the use of voice technology in the aid of reporting the news.”  Specifically, Bole was referencing the use of interactive voice response (IVR) technology and the direction his team was about to take.


Where We Are Today: Mali1 Mobile IVR

In close collaboration, the VOA Africa and ODDI team began work on Mali1 Mobile IVR using IVR Junction by Microsoft Research.

For those who may not be familiar with IVR capabilities, you most likely encounter it on an almost daily basis.  When you call your bank, credit card company or cable company you are usually greeted with a “Press 1 for…, Press 2 for…”  That is interactive voice response and is a technology that allows computer systems to identify or interact with the tone of a human voice or the tone of pressing numbers on your keypad.

IVR Junction by Microsoft Research is an open source project that is recognizes the need for a voice service that can network multiple phone numbers from multiple locations into one back-end system and then use simple existing tools, such as YouTube to manage the comments that are left by audience members.  In that regard it is ideal for an organization like VOA Africa who might need to deploy and manage multiple IVR systems when commercial services are not readily available or are too expensive to operate through a reseller.  According to the IVR Junction product page, interactive voice forums using IVR technology “enable callers to leave messages that can be heard over the Internet and over the phone.”

[Graphic depicting how the technology works, credit: Microsoft Research]

This is particularly useful because the technology can be configured to enable mobile users to leave voicemails and retrieve messages (similar to another promising open source project, the Interactive Voice Forum for citizen journalists known as CGNet Swara).  IVR technology can also be used to send email and text messages by speaking into the mobile devices and can allow consumers to ‘opt in’ to mobile campaigns with a voice call.  Microsoft Research notes that IVR forums are already being used for “citizen news journalism, agricultural discussion, community dialogue, user-generated maps, access to health information, outreach to sex workers, group messaging, feedback on school meals, support for community radio stations, and a viral entertainment platform.”

In fact, activist groups are a growing consumer of such technology as well.  The Sunlight Foundation is currently using IVR technology (powered by Twilio, a cloud communications API) to provide a means for users “to navigate a menu tree to search a member of Congress by postal code” to listen to lawmakers recite “their biography, their top campaign donors, recent votes and allows a caller to be transferred directly to the Representative’s office.” This particular service is available in both English and Spanish.

Facebook is also aware of the value of IVR technology.  According to, “Callme, an application offered in partnership with Global Telelinks and based on IVR Technologies’ Talking SIP platform, allows Facebook users to make free voice calls with other members of the social network without revealing their phone number.”  This technology works for mobile Facebook users—even for Facebook ‘Zero’ users (provided that they log in).  (I just did a pretty in-depth write up on Facebook ‘Zero’.)

I could go on and on… the possibilities for IVR are seemingly endless.


Field Testing

So, since late last year, the ODDI team, lead by Doug Zabransky, Manager of Technology Services, have been working on tailoring the Mali1 Mobile IVR for field testing.  “The key ingredients in mind for serving digital and mobile content to Mali are lightweight and low cost solutions,” notes Zabransky, “The Mali1 Mobile Interactive Voice Response system meets these criteria.”


To better understand exactly how the product is used, Zabransky explained the step-by-step details to me…

How Mali1 Mobile IVR Works for Staff:

  • The listening junction consists of a pre-configured PC-based laptop with a GSM Standard SIM (the number that users will call) to be inserted into the modem.  (The junction must be able to access a wi-fi network.)
  • Staff must plug the network cable from the LAN port of modem into the LAN port on computer, then power up the modem and laptop.
  • Finally, staff must check that the Internet connection is working, then must call the SIM’s phone number to check that the IVR is working for users.

And that’s it.  The setup instructions are simple enough for practically anyone.

[Mali1 Mobile IVR prototype setup for staff; photo credit: Rob Bole]

How Mali1 Mobile IVR Works for Users:

  • Listener calls Bamako cell phone number (Orange telecom, local in-country rates apply)
  • Menu options are press 1 to ‘Listen to the Latest News’ or 2 to ‘Leave a Message’
  • Option 1 will play the latest 3 minute news package
  • Option 2 will allow listener to leave a message or to self-report the news
  • Messages are digitized and sent to YouTube automatically for language service moderation.

“The ability for someone to make an inexpensive, local call is key,” Zabransky continues, “Technically, in order to achieve this we have adopted open source software from MicroSoft called IVR Junction.”

“If this solution proves successful, then future expansion into other target regions will be considered with central infrastructure management in mind, customized and enhanced menu options would need to be developed,” further explains Zabransky, “and user-generated content integrations into our own content management systems” would be discussed—including “piggy-backing SMS services using the same local SIM cards.”

And, it should be mentioned that there are mobile visual IVR solutions available as well.  These solutions are generally meant for users with smart phone access, but if that is a possibility in particular regions, then users are privy to another level of potential news service.


VOA IVR Systems and Audience Growth

According to Steven Ferri, Mobile & Digital Media Manager for VOA Africa, IVR initiatives within VOA “are a recent addition to our media distribution strategy”. He adds that, “at present, our audience between 30K to 40K unique calls per day” and that “call length averages approximately 10:00 per call.”

When asked why IVR is an important and strategic channel for Africa, Ferri replied:  “There are three reasons why IVR is an important and strategic channel for Africa. The first is audience acquisition and escalation. IVR, like SMS is an entry-level content channel. It provides anyone with a phone, which in Africa is highly likely to a mobile phone, the ability to listen to a VOA audiocast. IVR positions users to move up to more sophisticated VOA products as their device and income dictates. The second is cost. IVR services are calibrated to meet the cost expectations that are within the user’s economic means. The third is affinity. IVR, as an audio-centric medium, meets the historic media consumption habits of a large portion of our potential audience.”

In addition to the Mali1 Mobile IVR used by VOA Africa, there are other IVR channels that are currently in use in Afghanistan.


Future of IVR

Zabransky says, “if the pilot goes well we would consider expansion into other regions (unknown exactly where at this point).”

“VOA believes there is a large, untapped market for our IVR products in Africa,” Ferri explains, “We envision growing IVR in those target regions where it is economically and technically possible. We want to grow IVR in parallel and integrated with our traditional radio and TV media as well as our digital platforms.”

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What are your thoughts on all this?  Post in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.

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Thank you to Doug Zabransky, Rob Bole, Adam Gartner and Steven Ferri for their contributions to this post.

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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SXSW 2013: Africa is exploding with development, mobile only and radio is their ‘killer app’ Sun, 10 Mar 2013 17:30:05 +0000 Will Sullivan At South by Southwest this week there was a session relevant to BBG publishers, “The 1Bn Mobile Bullet Train Called Africa” lead by Toby Shapshak of Stuff Magazine and Gareth Knight of Tech4Africa.

Knight kicked off the discussion declaring the start importance of mobile in Africa. “More people have a cellphone than have access to electricity,” he said.

The duo cited this plus necessity and utility as the core reasons mobile in Africa is crucial to the continent’s development citing innovative efforts in health (from doctors sharing information to prescription drug authenticity verification), to disaster and conflict reporting tools like Ushahidi, to farmers using SMS to get information on market prices for food and weather.

One of the most innovative uses of mobile in African countries is the development of M-Pesa as a means for exchanging money and banking. They said that 80% of the world’s mobile money currently goes through Africa, far leading the western world which is still trying to figure out a standard for mobile money. They relayed a humorous anecdote about a friend who was asked for a bribe at the airport, who after telling the briber that he didn’t have any cash, he said “you can sent it to me by M-Pesa.”

Throughout the presentation they underscored that utility value is critical to any African mobile ventures.  Speed and critical, timely  information underpin this and are the core values we need to always keep in perspective at the BBG when developing products for these countries. They also pointed out that as many African mobile phones have FM transmitters in them, for mobile, radio is still the ‘killer phone app’ in Africa — another area that the BBG entities have unique value for these audiences.

Their final takeaways were:

  • Africa is a mobile-only continent.
  • Africa has skipped the desktop Internet experience and will dive straight into the mobile web Internet.
  • There’s currently more than 750 million SIM cards in Africa (many people carry more than one) and that rate is growing at 25% annually.
  • Almost all interactions are focused on solving day-to-day problems, which Western nations often take for granted.
  • They encouraged the audience to think about the continent as a ‘Maslow Hierarchy of Needs’ for technology.
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Google ‘Free Zone’ and Facebook ‘Zero’: Products Targeting Developing Populations Tue, 19 Feb 2013 20:42:05 +0000 April Deibert Internet access and Internet freedom in developing nations are two huge and ongoing challenges for service providers.  Google and Facebook–two major players in many people’s daily search and social activities–developed solutions of their own with the hope that there would be mass adoption leading to exponential growth.  But, as you’ll read, for every new solution there is an additional unforeseen challenge to overcome.



Google ‘Free Zone’

According to Google, ‘Free Zone’ is “a product that allows users to access Google+, Gmail, and Google Search on their mobile phone without incurring data charges.” ‘Free Zone’ is currently available in the Philippines via Globe Telecom at—all you need is a Google account to sign up.  “With the new mobile Internet promo, Globe is initially offering access to around 30 million Globe Prepaid and TM subscribers nationwide until March 31, 2013,” according to The Next Web.  While Google does plan on introducing the service offering to additional countries, it seems that the Philippines was chosen as the initial market due to the fact that 1) Google built the software and Globe became the first operator to make it work on its network, 2) data is expensive, and 3) there is a high number of mobile users with basic Internet-enabled devices.

What’s in it for the user?  Truly free access to the Internet via “” or another local access hub.  What’s in it for Google (and Facebook)?  The growth of the next billion Internet users, the opening up of new business opportunities, improved analytics snapshots of developing areas, a likely increase in the value of stock prices and immense international political power.

The challenge with this system in the future will likely be Google’s negotiation prowess with other international telecom operators to allow Google ‘Free Zone’ to operate.



Facebook ‘Zero’

Similar to Google, Facebook launched “a text-only version of the Facebook service that carriers can offer to their subscribers at no charge.”  Facebook ‘Zero’ ( is a lightweight version of the mobile site ( that “omits data intensive applications like photos,” says Facebook spokesperson Brandee Barker.  ‘Zero’ refers to the fact that this mobile platform has a zero rating by telecom companies.  Having a zero rating means that certain types of data do not count against the user’s monthly data cap or prepaid quota.  Thus the user can then utilize a WAP protocol to access sites tailored for it—such as Facebook’s ‘’ if you’re in the right country and you have a WAP-enabled feature phone (non-smart phone).  The site is just text, but includes all the status update notifications available on the desktop or app versions.

So, after launching ‘Zero’ with a number of African mobile carriers in 2010, Facebook was able to add a substantial number of new users within those 18 months thanks to the free factor and the ease of use on basic phones.  In fact one blog states that in 2010, there was a 114% increase in Africa (within 18 months) on average.  The same blog states, as of December 2011, a total of 37+ million Facebook users had been added in Africa.  These may sound like insane increases, but taken into perspective, Facebook’s mobile outreach is still not necessarily being mass adopted.

For example, one blog states that Nigeria saw a “154% increase to 4,369,740” Facebook users (out of a population of 170,123,740 (July 2012 est.)), Ghana saw an “85% increase to 1,146,560” Facebook users (out of a population of 24,652,402 (July 2012 est.), and Kenya saw a “50% increase to 1,298,560” Facebook users (out of a population of 43,013,341 (July 2012 est.)).

The statistics on Kenya are particularly interesting because it is estimated that 99% of the Kenyan population has access to the Internet on their mobile device.  When you do the math, approximately just 3% of Kenyans were utilizing the free Facebook service at the time.  The number of mobile subscribers accessing the Internet through Telkom Kenya’s Orange network rose by 2.4 per cent (from 674,255 subscribers – accounting for 8.8 per cent of the overall market share – in June 2012, to 948,847 subscribers, accounting for 11.2 per cent of the market) during the period between July and September 2012.  So, there was roughly 8,471,848 mobile data subscribers out of the Kenyan population of 43,013,341 (July 2012 est.).

That means 99% of the Kenyan population has mobile friendly phones, but only 20% of them subscribe to data packages.  If ‘Zero’ is free to access, why aren’t there more Kenyan Facebook subscribers?  Quite the riddle, if I do say so myself.


Unforeseen Challenges for Both ‘Free Zone’ and ‘Zero’

The answer to why there aren’t more users actually may be simple.  For example, many people in rural areas still see Facebook access as “a luxury,” limited by a number of factors that first-world people don’t consider:

- There may be a lack of electricity at home to charge a phone and public charging areas may be limited or may cost money.

- It may be too difficult take and upload a profile photo, due to a lack of a camera, or lack of a working mobile phone camera, or lack of a data plan to upload the image even if a person took a photo on the mobile phone. (‘Zero’ is a text only version anyway, but not everyone wants a solely ‘Zero’-friendly profile.)

- There is a cost at Internet cafes to not only use the Internet, but also to scan/upload a photo and to create an email.

- A person may have travel to town to use the Internet and will need to pay for a ride on a bicycle, motorcycle, or matatu.

- But perhaps most important: using the Internet for 30 minutes costs the same as feeding maize porridge to a family for several days.

The simple cost/benefit analysis by average Kenyans may prove that Internet access just isn’t what they should spend their money on right now.  For a much more detailed explanation of the difficulties rural Kenyans have with Internet access, you’ve got to read this article here.  So interesting and with lots of first person quotes from actual Kenyans.


So, is Mobile Web Useless in Developing Countries?

This is debatable, but it is a fact that from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe many countries face a lack of Internet infrastructure, a lack of Internet freedom, restrictions on wi-fi, low-bandwidth capabilities and expensive access costs.  So, naturally, promoting mobile web–with access to free major sites–is actually a huge plus.

Mobile web may not be useless, but according to Vision Mobile, approximately 73% of the world’s mobile phones are not smart phones.  And, if users are able to afford access to a mobile phone, one blog states that “in countries in the developing world, the average monthly spend on mobile connectivity, which is often just voice and text, is 8-12% of the average take-home pay of a cell phone user.”  That’s rather significant.

All is not bleak, however.  There’s a ton that we can do to follow in these giant’s footsteps and improve upon their solutions to tough mobile web technology implementation and outreach in developing nations.  Afterall, infrastructure will likely continue to evolve over time leading to decreased costs and increased accessibility.

That leads me to my list of optimistic suggestions below.


What We Can Do to Follow in the Footsteps of ‘Free Zone’ and ‘Zero’

1.      Be aware that smart phones, wireless data packages, and wi-fi are still out of reach for many across the globe.

2.      Develop access for every type of phone.  Here’s a great chart outlining Facebook’s strategy to conquer the developing world through partnerships, acquisitions, and product rollouts: [insert chart and credit source]

3.      Incorporate partnerships with companies that provide technical aspects on mobile phones.  One example is Fonetwish.  “Fonetwish uses a little-known protocol common to nine out of 10 phones on the planet, called USSD, to create a text-based interface for sites such as Facbook,” states one blog.  In fact, Orange, one of the leading mobile carriers in Africa, rolled out Facebook by Fonetwish on a trial basis to 350,000 users in Egypt at the end of 2011.

4.      Remember that not every country can use the same business model.  Mexico is the one developing country, out of the top 10 countries with the most Facebook users, where none of the carriers have agreed to offer Facebook ‘Zero’.  Instead, Facebook offers “Facebook for Every Phone, a version installed on SIM cards that works on around 80 percent of phones,” states one Gizmodo blogger.

5.      Design and build apps to be effective in low-bandwidth situations.  Consider using low-tech solutions such as WAP, SMS and other technologies.

6.      Design websites and apps that are fast loading and don’t use much data to browse.  Limit the amount of graphics, images, and videos to a need-to-know basis.   Having an all text site may seem overtly simple, but may be very effective at reaching a particular population.

7.      Promote important and useful information on the front page of your website or app.  News, weather, health information, crop or livestock prices, blogs written by local people, etc.

8.      Host workshop days to train locals how to build mobile apps that serve their particular needs.  By training locals to code simple web services, the entrepreneurial spirit may catch on and evolve into ideas and services that foreigners have not considered.

9.      Deliver content in the local language.  Larger services may be able to automate this process better in the future by geo-targeting regions and auto-translating pages into a list of local languages.

10.   Fund studies to demonstrate the need for expanded telecom investment and communications outreach into developing areas.  Make a point that all solutions must be affordable and sustainable.

11.   Consider if offering ‘zero data’ apps and services.  This, however, may bring about a larger cost of charges incurred for data usage.  For a great list of some extra complexities to the model to consider, check out this blog here.

12.   Be sure that websites can be accessed from USSD enabled devices.

13.   Invest in UX testing at the local level.


What are your thoughts on all this?  Post in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.


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Thank you to Rob Bole for his contributions to this post.

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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Occupy Egypt? Tue, 22 Nov 2011 15:42:55 +0000 admin As the uprisings against the interim military government in Egypt intensify, has declared solidarity with the “brothers and sisters of Tahrir Square.”

In the latest news from Egypt, the country’s military rulers have agreed to form a new government and promised to transfer power to a civilian body by July. While the Occupy movement has drawn inspiration from Egypt’s struggle, the message and results are less clear since the movement’s “Day of Action.” Both struggles rely on the media to move their causes forward, but is the connection merely manufactured for the media?

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New Mobile Media Toolkit Features Tue, 08 Nov 2011 19:11:05 +0000 admin We were impressed last summer when Mobile Active released the Mobile Media Toolkit. They’ve recently added several new features, articles and how-to guides to their ever-growing arsenal of tools for making and distributing mobile media.

New to Us: Toolkit content is available in English, Spanish and Arabic and will be translated into Russian as well.

New How-To Guide: Live stream content with Bambuser using only a laptop equipped with a webcam and the Bambuser mobile streaming application. The mobile app is available across a variety of platforms including Apple, Android, Bada, Symbian and Windows Mobile.

New Case Study: Using a new open-source tool called TRAC FM, a radio station in Uganda has been able to poll listeners via SMS and share the results. The platform enables stations in countries affected by poverty and conflict to monitor, scrutinize and discuss public service issues via SMS, radio and online data visualizations.

New Articles: The site has added instructional pieces covering subjects such as adding location information to content, reporting on a smartphone and engaging with audiences.

Mobile Tools: The site has an extensive list of mobile media tools and apps with descriptions, reviews and specs, from AppMakr to WordPress Mobile Pack.

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SXSWi: Mobile Web in Africa Mon, 14 Mar 2011 18:04:36 +0000 admin By Trisha Creekmore

Austin, Tex. — When I perused the packed schedule at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the annual tech, content and innovation festival looking for panels, speakers and conversations that would be relevant to VOA editors and producers, I found “Beyond the Hype: Mobile App Opportunities in Africa.”

According to the speakers — Justin Arenstein, partner at Rest of the World Media, Nic Haralambous co-founder of the mobile startup, Motribe and Brian Herbert, director of Ushahidi – if you want to reach Africans with non-traditional media, the clear format winner is the mobile Web, not traditional computer Web browsers.

They pointed out that mobile is mature in Africa, where sales of mobile phones grew 22 percent year-on-year in 2009 and another 280 million users are projected to be added to the current one billion by 2015. According to the panel, 10 percent of Kenya’s GDP is channeled through one mobile money channel. As many as ten million subscribers pay bills and fees and transfer money with mobile phones.

But there is a catch: Very few Africans have access to smartphones like the iPhone (less than 1 percent of the market) and android. While many of the devices in circulation have web browsers, the screens are tiny in comparison to the standard in most Western countries. The speakers emphasized the need to build for the lowest common technological denominator and that the mobile Web can do what apps can do, it just doesn’t look as good.

Some of the most impressive successes demonstrated in the panel were focused on crowdsourcing information. Arenstein spoke about a project he helped develop in which local farmers used an SMS and text message system to report on crop issues to a central network. Haralambous talked about his startup, Motribe, a social network built entirely for the mobile web. He made the point that very few Africans have even heard of Facebook.

Brian Herbert demonstrated Ushahidi, a service for reporting location during times of crisis. From its use during the earthquake in Haiti to elections in Kenya, the service has been used encourage citizen engagement and help humanitarian workers quickly report location using SMS technology. It’s proven to be a valuable tool to route messages to people and populations during conventional Web blackouts.

My takeaway? VOA editors and producers interested in reaching Africans should continue to look to the mobile Web and SMS, both for content delivery and crowdsourced reporting. And watch the startup space. Africans are innovating ways to use the mobile Web at a blistering pace.

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